The Philadelphia County prison system has arguably been a human rights disaster for decades, but it has only deteriorated since the start of the pandemic. Conditions have become so bad; many compare it to the inhumane conditions found at Riker’s Island in NYC. In 2021 alone, at least 18 people impacted by the criminal justice system died while incarcerated in a Philadelphia County prison, most of them homicides, suicides, or drug overdoses. Four people have died in just the first month and a half of 2022.
By comparison, the Philadelphia Prison System had only 11 deaths on average annually over the previous four years.
Even though the city’s death rate in its jails is more than double the national average in 2021 and looks to continue that trend in 2022, deaths inside of county jails are trending up across the country. By 2019 the number of people who have died inside the county jails increased by 5% from the previous year and were up 11% from 2000, according to a report issued by the Bureau of Justice Statistics.
Activists, loved ones of the victims, and city officials all blame high incarceration rates, correctional staff shortfalls and conditions in the facilities, or some combination of those things. Even the correctional staff are begging for help.
“We have been warning the city for months that the prison is dangerous, unconstitutional in its conditions, and past the boiling point,” said Pennsylvania Prison Society executive director Claire Shubik-Richards.
Responding to conditions inside the facilities at State Road. “This is not just a crisis, it’s a five-alarm emergency,” said City Councilmember Helen Gym.
According to a report issued by City Controller Rebecca Rhynhart, the city needed to add at least 400 new correctional staff to serve the population at that time. The city is still losing ground on meeting the staffing needs in its facilities. More than 30% of the correctional staff are already doing mandatory overtime, often working doubles and some officers working as many as 22 hours at a time under already harsh conditions.
Many are quitting before they even make it through their training of the new correctional officer cadets the city has hired. They knew they were signing up to work in a prison. Still, they did not think they were signing up to work under these conditions, said David Robinson, president of Local 159 of AFSCME District Council 33, the union representing Philadelphia’s correctional officers.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has made it painfully clear that the conditions of our prisons are inhumane and unacceptable. I have spent the past few months, making regular visits to prison facilities where I’ve seen and talked to incarcerated individuals who are prohibited from leaving their cells; who must decide between bathing and calling family members; or who are exposed to dangerous conditions due to staffing shortages,” said Councilmember Kendra Brooks of conditions in the city’s prisons at the time of the report. “We can no longer make excuses for the unsafe conditions of our prisons. Incarcerated individuals and their families deserve answers, and they need a plan.”
According to recent court filings in Thomas Remick V City of Philadelphia, the increased risk of violence and death is exasperated by lockdown conditions stemming from staff shortages, which have caused increased conflicts over the use of the phones due to the limited amount of time incarcerated folks are out of their cells.
“People are locked down sometimes for weeks on end, they can’t talk to their families, many people aren’t getting any contact with the outside world and that frustrates people, ramps up their aggression level, never mind being stuck in a small cell with two or three people, if they’re in one of the converted cells as many as four people 23 to 24 hours a day for days and weeks on end,” said Lewis Brown a recently returned citizen who was housed at both CFCF and PICC.
Other inmates in these prisons are not the only threat these men have to worry about; in recent years, there has been an increase in excessive force used by correctional staff. The use of pepper spray has become a widespread practice for enforcing prison lockdown practices and other minor infractions, including verbal slights. People merely in the vicinity of a conflict with correction officers were sprayed without warning. Often victims are left to languish with the injuries they sustain without medical treatment.
According to court filings, Corrections officers are inadequately trained on the use of pepper spray, which has led to officers spraying directly into sensitive areas of the body and long sustained sprays instead of short bursts, which is the proper procedure.
Correctional staff used pepper spray on incarcerated people 554 times in 2020, a 9% increase compared to the previous year, despite a 6% decrease in the average monthly population. In 2020, pepper spray was used more at PICC than in all but two of the county jails in Pennsylvania on a per capita basis.
These lockdowns, staff shortages, and overcrowded conditions are nothing new in the Philadelphia Prison System. These conditions have been a constant for decades, with federal authorities and the courts having to step in multiple times over the last 40 years. They are part of a long-standing pattern and practice that city officials have shown no interest in changing.
Mayor Kenney’s recent statement of support for Commissioner Blanche Carney amid calls for her resignation by attorney John Coyle and others says all you need to know about how little the city cares about the conditions on State Road.
“The mayor supported the efforts of Commissioner Carney and her team to keep (corrections) employees and incarcerated people safe,” Spokesperson for the Mayor’s Office, Kevin Lessard, told reporters.
Efforts have utterly failed the staff and people impacted by the criminal justice system, as is evident in the worsening violence and the extremely high death rate for those under her care.
John Coyle represents the family of Armani Faison, who was raped and beaten to death after being placed in a cell with another inmate who had already been accused of attempted rape by another inmate. “Armani’s body was found the following morning naked, bloodied, and floating in six inches of water,” according to a suit.
No guard had done rounds to check on him or the other people housed on the block, which has become a frequent practice and has led to the death of multiple people incarcerated in these facilities.
Another victim of not receiving medical attention and adequate cell checks by corrections staff was 22-year-old Rashaan Chambers, who languished in his cell for more than 24 hours after having attempted to get himself medical attention and being told no; others housed on the block continued to call for help to no avail. Only after Lewis Brown, who was housed on his block, noticed that he had not been out of bed all day and got into the medical line to directly ask the nurse to help Rashaan that someone checked on him and found him unconscious in his bed. Even then, people housed on the block had to kick their cell doors before anyone came.
“This didn’t have to happen, all of this could have been prevented if they had just given him the medical care he needed when he needed it,” said Ebony Chambers, Rashaan’s mother. “They treat you like you’re guilty before you’ve even had your day in court, there is no innocent until proven guilty, there’s just guilty in America.”
This is a story that has been repeated repeatedly, not just through the last two years but for decades.
“They brush these deaths under the rug and go about their lives like it means nothing, but this was my son, these are people’s children, they’re husbands, they’re fathers, they’re our neighbors and they just don’t care,” said Chambers. “They had complete control over his life and treatment until he (Her son Rashaan) was dead, and his life meant nothing to them.”
“A man was beaten to death while in the care and custody of the city of Philadelphia,” attorney Jordan Strokovsky said. Representing the family of Christopher Hinkle, another victim who was beaten to death at CFCF. “Something like this should never happen.”
But it will continue to happen until those responsible are held accountable, and the Philadelphia Prison System is forced to change.
If you’re interested in ongoing work to preserve the human rights, dignity, and lives of these men, women, and children most of whom haven’t even been convicted of the crimes they are being held for… follow the links below.